WASHINGTON — The chiefs of America’s intelligence agencies last week presented President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Mr Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.
The summary is based on memos generated by political operatives seeking to derail Mr Trump’s candidacy. Details of the reports began circulating before the US election and were widely known among journalists and politicians in Washington.
The two-page summary, first reported by CNN, was presented as an appendix to the intelligence agencies’ report on Russian hacking efforts during the election, the officials said. The material was not corroborated, and The New York Times has not been able to confirm the claims. (Mr Trump denied the uncorroborated claims in the intelligence material at a chaotic press conference. Full report below.)
But intelligence agencies considered it so potentially explosive that they decided Mr Obama, Mr Trump and congressional leaders needed to be told about it and informed that the agencies were actively investigating it.
Intelligence officials were concerned that the information would leak before they informed Mr Trump of its existence, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak about it publicly.
On Tuesday night (local time), Mr Trump responded on Twitter:
FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
In an appearance recorded for NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, Mr Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, said of the claims in the opposition research memos: “He has said he is not aware of that.”
Since the intelligence agencies’ report on Friday that President Vladimir Putin of Russia had ordered the hacking and leaks of Democratic emails in order to hurt his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, and help Mr Trump, the President-elect and his aides have said that Democrats are trying to mar his election victory.
The decision of top intelligence officials to give the President, the President-elect and the so-called Gang of Eight — Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress and the intelligence committees — what they know to be unverified, defamatory material was extremely unusual.
The appendix summarised opposition research memos prepared mainly by a retired British intelligence operative for a Washington political and corporate research firm. The firm was paid for its work first by Mr Trump’s Republican rivals and later by supporters of Mrs Clinton. The Times has checked on a number of the details included in the memos but has been unable to substantiate them.
The memos suggest that for many years, the Russian government of Mr Putin has looked for ways to influence Mr Trump, who has traveled repeatedly to Moscow to investigate real estate deals or to oversee the Miss Universe competition, which he owned for several years. Mr Trump never completed any major deals in Russia, though he discussed them for years.
The former British intelligence officer who gathered the material about Mr Trump is considered a competent and reliable operative with extensive experience in Russia, American officials said. But he passed on what he heard from Russian informants and others, and what they told him has not yet been vetted by American intelligence.
The memos describe sex videos involving prostitutes with Mr Trump in a 2013 visit to a Moscow hotel. The videos were supposedly prepared as “kompromat”, or compromising material, with the possible goal of blackmailing Mr Trump in the future.
The memos also suggest that Russian officials proposed various lucrative deals, essentially as disguised bribes in order to win influence over Mr Trump.
The memos describe several purported meetings during the 2016 presidential campaign between Trump representatives and Russian officials to discuss matters of mutual interest, including the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta.
If some of the unproven claims in the memos are merely titillating, others would amount to extremely serious, potentially treasonous acts.
One of the opposition research memos quotes an unidentified Russian source as claiming that the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails was carried out “with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team”. In return, the memo said, “the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue” because Mr Putin “needed to cauterise the subject”.
Michael Cohen, a lawyer and adviser to Mr Trump, also went to Twitter to deny a specific claim in the opposition research involving him. One of the memos claims that Mr Cohen went to Prague in August or September to meet with Kremlin representatives and to talk about Russian hacking of Democrats.
Mr Cohen tweeted on Tuesday night that he had never been to Prague.
Evidence of links
The Times reported before the election that the FBI was looking into possible evidence of links between the Trump campaign and Russia. But the investigation surfaced again at a Senate hearing on Tuesday in a series of questions from Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, to the FBI director, James B. Comey.
Mr Wyden, trying to draw Mr Comey out on information he may have heard during a classified briefing, asked if the FBI had investigated the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. Mr Comey demurred, saying he could not discuss any investigations that might or might not be underway.
Mr Wyden kept pressing, asking Mr Comey to provide a written answer to the question before Mr Trump’s inauguration on January 20 because he feared there would be no declassification of the information once Mr Trump took office.
After the hearing, Mr Wyden posted on Twitter:
Director Comey refused to answer my question about whether the FBI has investigated Trump campaign contacts with Russia
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) January 10, 2017
The FBI obtained the material long before the election, and some of the memos in the opposition research dossier are dated as early as June. But agents have struggled to confirm it, according to federal officials familiar with the investigation.
Allies of Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader from Nevada who retired at the end of the year, said the disclosures validated his call last summer for an investigation by the FBI into Mr Trump’s links to Russia.
Democrats on Tuesday night pressed for a thorough investigation of the claims in the memos. Representative Eric Swalwell of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called for law enforcement to find out whether the Russian government had had any contact with Mr Trump or his campaign.
“The president-elect has spoken a number of times, including after being presented with this evidence, in flattering ways about Russia and its dictator,” Mr Swalwell said. “Considering the evidence of Russia hacking our democracy to his benefit, the president-elect would do a service to his presidency and our country by releasing his personal and business income taxes, as well as information on any global financial holdings.”
— The New York Times